A change in disposition.

by Marty Padgett

L.A. (LOWER ALABAMA) - After ten years of writing about cars, it’s still somewhat of a surprise when someone stops you and asks about the new vehicle you’re driving. First instinct: "How fast was I going?" Second instinct: "Was I really going that fast?"

Fortunately, not all encounters are graced by a light bar and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Last week I drove the Lexus SC430 through Lower Alabama, and in every one of the five stops on the way, folks asked about my wheels - even in tiny Flomaton, Ala., a town seemingly possessed by pickup mania.

What relevance could a $60,000, effectively two-seat convertible have on a farm town snuggled like a tick on a basset hound right on the border of the Florida panhandle?

"I saw it in a magazine," said the young Ford LTD II driver who stopped me at the Shell station. "It’s about the nicest car I’ve ever seen."

Some things are universal.

Proposition 320

The SC430 is a compelling proposition, even so if you were enamored by the last generation of SC300/SC400 coupes. Those vehicles, particularly the six-cylinder SC300, were balanced, handsome machines with a cabin one colleague thought "looked just like Orson Welles’ library." Even when the coupe market collapsed around them, they retained their graceful composure.

The new coupe veers from the established formula, vectoring more toward runway style and a sunnier disposition. There’s a 300-hp V-8 under the hood - no downscale six-cylinder version, at least yet - and a hardtop convertible roof influenced, the designers say, by the balmy beaches of St. Tropez.

The difference between generations couldn’t be more profound. The introvert’s become an extrovert, giving up its fancy technical know-how for a tropical tan and some bespoke lines. How far has it strayed into the realm of shallow pleasure? An example: on the previous generation of SC coupes, an extremely complex articulated hinge lifted the heavy doors out and away for easy entry and exit. On this edition, the door hinge is a simple affair. The complex hinge now lives to lift the enormous decklid out of the way as the hardtop does a 25-second maneuver and stows itself out of sight.

Highlights for adults

If the goal of the ‘02 SC is purely a sensual one, it’s an overwhelming success. The 300-hp, 4.3-liter V-8 plays a principal role here; it’s utterly smooth, and doles out power in a steady stream. There’s no sense that the five-speed automatic dams that flow, either, and while many owners would obviously prefer a six-speed manual, Lexus’ solution is a virtuous one, massaging downshifts into creamy submission, while executing them briskly.

The driving dynamics of the SC430 are in perfect harmony with its cruising mission. You may miss the slightly sharper edge of the previous coupe, but probably not when cruising the coast or rumbling down a crowded city street. The ride is finely tuned, compensating more than adequately for the occasional shiver that ripples through the structure, and the braking is strong.

Cabin and cargo room are at a premium in all directions, however. Because of the hardtop design, the windshield pillar comes close to the forehead of taller drivers. The back bench is upholstered only for grocery containment. The trunk space is ridiculously small with the hardtop lowered, but if you’re leaving the roof closed, you can slide away a cargo cover and stack a little more inside. (The cover is linked electronically into the top hardware, so you can’t lower the roof when the cover is out of place.)

Fashion forward

Its beauty belies the complexity of the SC430’s roof mechanism, and so does its ease of use. Push the button on the right of the climate controls and the roof lowers in about half a minute with robotic grace.

Passers-by are hypnotized by its machinations, but they really fawn over the exotic shape, which patently looks better with the top down. As a convertible, the SC’s silhouette droops, referencing older coupes and even the current Audi TT, perhaps in a less timeless way but faintly dashing. The detailing clashes with the retro-conceived shape, though, especially the slashing headlamps and taillamps, which are more fitting on Toyota’s $22,000 Celica. Even more awkward is the glassy area: with the roof raised, it looks ungainly and small, almost like a hot-rod job applied to the wrong vehicle.

Light-colored maple and metallic finishes make the SC430’s interior a bright, sophisticated place to play. The lacquered birdseye (walnut, if you prefer) is especially tasteful on the lighter colors available. The seats are tailored in supple leather, and handy storage bins abound. While we didn’t sample the optional navigation system, we did entertain ourselves with the SC430’s remarkable audio system.

The nine-speaker, 240-watt Mark Levinson sound system ranks with the very best audio systems ever offered in a production vehicle, along with Lexus’ Nakamichi system offered in the 1990 LS 400 and a Land Rover ten-speaker system from the early 1990s. Over a wide range of compact discs, from Joao Gilberto to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the system delivered the most crisp bass response and mellow midtones I’ve ever heard behind the wheel. Beware if you make your own discs, though: the in-dash six-disc changer refuses to let go of CDs even marginally thicker than standard.

If this particular flavor of luxoconvertible makes your wallet levitate, be prepared for unadorned adoration. The SC430 won more compliments than recent Corvettes, M3, even a Hummer. And while some (okay, I) will miss the nth degree of precision sacrificed to make the SC look and behave sunnier, the rest of you will simply know a good thing when you see it.

2002 Lexus SC430 coupe

Base price range: $59,000
Engine: 4.3 liter V-8, 300 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Length: 177.8 in
Width: 72 in
Height: 53.1 in
Curb Weight: 3840 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 18/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags w/crash sensors, side airbags, seat belt pretensioners, ABS, stability control, traction control
Major standard features: Power retractable hardtop, six-disc Mark Levinson premium audio system, leather and wood trim, power windows, locks and cruise control
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

© 2001 The Car Connection

 

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